The Green Consumer, 1990-2010

Two steps forward 2 In 1990, Joel Makower authored, "The Green Consumer." The book, which provided varied insights into the green consumer and developing green marketplace, spurred a discussion that is still going on today. Makower makes the point that despite the technological and other advances of the past twenty years, the green consumer marketplace hasn't grown at the same pace.

Posted Mar. 29, 2010
By Joel Makower, Two Steps Forward

It wasn't 20 years ago today, but close enough: About this time in 1990,
my book, "The Green Consumer," hit the bookstores. The book — the U.S.
version of a 1988 U.K. bestseller, "The Green Consumer Guide," by John
Elkington and Julia Hailes, which I substantially adapted for U.S.
audiences — began with a simple premise:

You probably don't realize it, but every week you
make dozens of decisions that directly affect the environment of the
planet Earth. At work, at home, and at play, whether shopping for life's
basic necessities or its most indulgent luxuries, the choices you make
are a never-ending series of votes for or against the environment.

I went on to note that:

The marketplace is not a democracy; you don't need a
majority opinion to make change. Indeed, it takes only a small portion
of shoppers — as few as one person in ten — changing buying habits for
companies to stand up and take notice.

From that opening gambit sprang 340-odd pages of overviews, insights,
advice, lists, and sidebars (including one cheery piece titled "How the
American Way of Life Is Destroying the Earth"). And from that book
sprang 1,001 magazine articles, syndicated columns, newsletters,
speeches, interviews, panel discussions, books, reports, websites, and
more that have been the centerpiece of my professional life over the
past two decades.

The world has changed dramatically over those 20 years. There's the
Internet, for starters, as well as 500-channel cable TV, social media,
globalization, and the rapid growth of emerging economies, the current
Great Recession notwithstanding. Environmental issues have gone from the
margins to the mainstream. School kids, young adults, their parents,
and even some politicians today are well-versed in environmental
problems, if not their solutions. And more and more companies continue
to be engaged in more and more ways, addressing and reducing their
environmental impacts. Many companies are going beyond that, creating
innovative new products and services designed for a low-carbon economy.

But one thing hasn't changed all that much: green consumers. That is,
there don't seem to be that many more than today in 1990, in terms of
people making significant changes to their shopping and consuming habits
in ways that move markets toward greener products and services, never
mind actually "saving the earth."

I won't bother to make the case that consumers — in the U.S. but also
elsewhere — say one thing and do another. I've harped on that theme
relentlessly over the years. (See examples here, here, here, here, and here, among many others.) Suffice to say, the chasm
between green concern, as expressed by consumers to market researchers,
and green consumerism, as reflected in real-life purchase of products
and services, remains vast, as much today as in 1990.

True, there are successes. In the cleaning products aisle, Method and Seventh Generation now compete to scrub market
share from the likes of Clorox and Procter & Gamble. Fedex and UPS compete vigorously on who can deliver greener
operations. So, too, Dell and HP, Coke and Pepsi, and a handful of other leading brands that
compete to see who is greener. The notion of big companies competing, at
least in part, on environmental performance represents progress, no
question about it.

But also of this represents only a tiny fraction of the economy, and
little of this is driven by consumer demand. Consumers, for all their
good intentions, don't really want to change. They want what they want —
and what they feel they need and deserve — with little regard for where
it comes from, how it's made, how it's used, and its impacts throughout
its life-cycle.

To be sure, consumers haven't been overwhelmed with green choices.
While hundreds of major companies have reduced their impacts in ways
both large and small, few of their achievements are visible on
supermarket shelves. As I've written in the past, the aluminum can
containing a third less aluminum than its predecessor, the laptop
computer that has eliminated toxic flame retardants, and the bag of
snack food whose manufacturer now recycles its rinse water, all
represent tangible environmental improvements. But these companies
aren't typically messaging those achievements. Indeed, they're not even
undertaking these measures to "save the earth"; they're doing them
because they save money, reduce risk and liability, improve quality, and
delight employees — and maybe win them a few reputational points.

That
is to say, they're doing these things for all the right reasons.

The result: We've all become greener consumers in spite of ourselves.
The stuff we buy is greener than it used to be, sometimes significantly
so, even though its producers don't necessarily tout their
achievements.

All of which raises the question: Are green consumers even necessary?
Is much of this marketing and labeling activity a waste, a distraction
from the business of running an eco-efficient business?

It's an open question. As I've mentioned in the past, green marketing
represents a reputational risk for most big companies. Consumers,
activists, bloggers, and others are quick to dub things as "greenwash" when
environmentally imperfect companies make green claims. That has led many
companies to engage in, for lack of a better term, covert
environmentalism, burying mentions of their green deeds in their
websites or corporate responsibility reports, rather than tout them on
products or advertisements and risk the wrath of critics.

I'm not quite ready to proclaim green consumerism dead (though I
can't honestly say it's ever been alive and well). There will always be a
small corps of true-blue green consumers ready to vote with their
dollars — at least for some products. But my 20-year-old premise — that a
relative handful of committed consumers will transform companies and
markets — hasn't really panned out, though I still believe it to be
true.

What will green consumerism look like over the next decade? Will we
be celebrating or mourning green consumerism when Earth Day 2020 rolls
around? And if the former, how will we have gotten there? I welcome your
thoughts.

Joel is co-founder and executive editor of
Greener World Media, Inc., which produces GreenBiz.com and its
sister sites, ClimateBiz.com,
GreenerBuildings.com,
GreenerDesign.com,
and GreenerComputing.com.
Joel is also the principal author of the annual State of Green
Business report
and the Greener by Design conference, both produced by Greener
World Media.


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